Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Fiction in Nonfiction

There are people who show contempt for woks of fiction, and quickly quip that the only manuscripts they read are works of nonfiction, be it history books, newspapers, or books classified under the nonfiction section of the library. But as my media teachers, history professors, and writing mentors have taught me, we are all surrounded by works of fiction, although many are not readily aware of it. Most people look to nonfiction for truth: but truth is an already elusive concept in real life, how much more when it gets penned down by far from objective authors?

First and foremost, we must remember that books and publications are written by people. They are not divinely scribed by an omniscient deity, and thus are subject to bias. Even the most factual of documents are subject to this shortcoming. Take historical accounts. An old adage is that history is written by the victors. And it’s true. Not so long ago, Magellan was a hero to Filipinos, the man who discovered the Philippine Islands. Of course presently in that same island where one of the first battles between Spain and this archipelago was waged lies two graves: one honoring Magellan, the other Lapu-Lapu for fending off foreign conquerors. Magellan might be the hero for the West, but to history books in this country, Lapu-Lapu is not an ignorant savage but the first of many heroes who would rebel against Spain.

Sometimes, it’s not even the limitation of the writer but of the medium. Newspapers, for example, can only have one front page. As much as I want people to read everything that’s contained in the newspaper, a lot of people usually just focus on the front page. This is where the headlines are placed, but have you ever asked who gets to choose what gets splattered on in front? Similarly, the editors can’t report about everything that happens in the nation. Some news articles make its way to the inside pages, others buried or filed under “future use”. An editor could easily place an unwanted (but forced to publish) story somewhere in the middle of the broadsheet, consigning it to a subtle demise.

And since we’re talking about newspapers, nothing is as unforeseen as the present. They say hindsight is 20/20, and perhaps that is an advantage history books have over tabloids and broadsheets. I mean the dailies are forced to report about the present, and more often than not, we don’t have all the facts. We have conjectures, theories, and suspicions, and we try as best as we can to tie in all the facts. As much as our conclusions are true, they could also be wrong. History books, at least, have the benefit of sifting through the various discoveries. Even then, they are made obsolete with new discoveries of their respective field.

If that’s the case with history and with newspapers, how much more with other works of nonfiction? Again, many people have this misconception that just because a work is labeled as nonfiction that everything that needs to be written must be true. They forget that nonfiction is still literary, and thus subject to the same constraints of telling a story. When I read an account, a biography, or a report, I can’t always expect the writer to throw in everything that’s true. No, I expect to read about it in a cohesive and logical manner. That means lots of edited parts, and perhaps an embellishment here and there. In reading the exploits of an adventurer, for example, do I really need to know that the person went to the bathroom five times a day? At not if you’re trying to built up suspense and excitement. Similarly, when we blog about our day, we don’t always tell the tale chronological of events: we merely mention what is the most significant, what has the most impact. And sometimes, whether intentional or not, we tie them up with fictional interludes, or at least making it appear so.

Memory is also the most fragile of things, and most of us draw inspiration from remembered accounts, recalled events. When we finally get to write a work of nonfiction, they are far from perfectly accurate. Hallucinations, epiphanies, or faulty memory usually get in our way of telling a story as it is. And even then, other people would have witnessed the same event differently. People will have different truths, even if they arise from the same circumstances.

So is truth truly as elusive as it seems, since we cannot even trust the written word? I believe in ideological truths. The small instances might not always be true, but the larger message is. When I read about a man driven by greed and selfishness, just because I read it in a book, be it fiction or nonfiction, does not mean such people do not exist in reality. They do. The same goes for other emotions, such as kindness, love, and suffering. Or sometimes it’s not the bigger picture that’s true. I might fabricate the most unbelievable conspiracy story, and while the theory might be fictional, the smaller instances in the narrative, such as corruption in government, the abuses people suffer, or the double-standard humans live with, is something readers are familiar with.

First and foremost, I think reading challengers readers to think. The easiest thing to do is to simply believe what other people have to say; to let others do the thinking for you. Some people hide under the cover of nonfiction, when the fact of the matter is, there is more truth in fiction that one could ever realize.

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